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SAMSARA (2016)

Instrumentation: string quartet

This piece is made of circles. It’s always promising when you hit upon an idea that can be described so succinctly.

My first piano teacher, John Hursey, gave me a copy of a very mysterious piece of music that fits on to a single side of paper. Titled Resonances, though research seems to show no documented record of it being published under this title, it features some wonderful atonal harmony that I later learned was the product of composer Josef Hauer’s personal and rival-to-Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic compositional method.

Partly because Hauer has an air of underdog-ness about him, partly because he has been relegated to footnote in twentieth century musical history and I sensed that uncovering something ‘forgotten’ would be good for my degree marks, and partly because the ‘circular’ nature of his techniques served the aims of an idea I had, I latched on to him and tried to gain a hasty working familiarity with his methods. Both his compositions and his writing have an air of mysticism around them: he was not merely a composer, but ‘the spiritual father and (in spite of many imitators!) still the only master and connoisseur of twelve-note music’; did not ‘compose’, as such, but rather was the architect of zwölftonspiel which offer nothing short of ‘the deepest insight into cosmic order’ (source). These lofty aims yield a suitably mysterious music.

Hauer score_edited_edited.jpg

As many a young Westerner before me, I had a tussle with Buddhism in my late teens and some of the ideas I picked up there found their way into my musical pursuits. I'll avoid attempting to define samsara here for a long list of sensible reasons, but from it I got the idea of thinking of things as ‘circular’. You see where I'm going. The challenge that spawned this piece was to work circles into as many aspects of a composition as possible.
Hauer’s compositional method is harmonically circular, we’ve established that. Below is my kontinuum (Hauer's term), which importantly ends where it started and therefore can be repeated (if the process were continued, the D in the final chord would be replaced by C, which would create the starting chord. It’s not very clear as I've re-spelled the F# as Gb).


This chord sequence is presented as arpeggios that cascade up and down the full range of the string quartet—you know, like a circle. Transformations are applied that cause the sequence to rise in pitch until the midpoint of the piece, after which they descend to the starting register, and dynamics follow a similar trajectory. These facts, then, make the piece circular on four levels. My intention was to design a score that was visually circular in some way, perhaps with no correct way ‘up’ and no defined starting point once I had composed more sections.

The intention was to continue exploring this compositional method with a view to composing a full-scale string quartet that would have a marked a significant entry in my body of work. I think, however, that I ran into the limitations of Hauer’s methods fairly quickly, so any further work would need to draw inspiration from additional sources. I do think the idea as a whole has potential, though, so I imagine that one day without warning I will hit upon something and will recognise immediately that it is the thing I’ve been missing.



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